What you think makes a good actor’s showreel and what actually makes a strong actor’s showreel are often very different things.
Showreels have changed a lot over the years. When I first started out, most actors didn’t have a reel. The only people who had them were performers who been cast in TV shows and high-budget films. But then, as digital filmmaking technology became wildly available – it meant everybody could shoot anything. The era of acting showreels being essential was finally here.
The only problem was – there was a huge case of quantity over quality.
A showreel is an art form in itself – it has a language of its own to adhere to. There are good showreels and bad showreels. Here are five key tips to make sure your reel is one of the good ones.
1.Focus on what shows great acting.
b) Using an expensive looking drone shot.
c) Using a scene because the film won an award.
d) Using a scene because you have a personal attachment to the project.Casting directors want to see you ACT. They want to see you, as a character, handling conflict, being a living breathing human being.
2. Don’t over-prioritise scenes with famous people.
Last week I was having a one-to-one meeting with an actor about their showreel. The first scene was noticeably high budget, but instead of seeing the actor I was talking to – a twentysomething female, I instead saw the back of a man’s head. He walked into a room and then a young woman helped him put on a coat.
I was able to identify the character as the woman I was having the meeting with – but she never had a close up, there was no drama in the scene, and I couldn’t quite figure out why she had chosen this scene to open the reel.
After watching I said, ‘I’m guessing this guy is famous?’
And she said, ‘Yes, it’s Sean Penn’.
I hadn’t even noticed it was Sean Penn, who I love! Thing is, I was totally focused on the woman whose showreel it was. And by focusing on her – the scene felt pretty pointless in terms of her showreel.
Yes, it was a big credit. And you score a point for being in professional work. But all she did was help a guy put on his coat. She really didn’t flex her acting muscles at all. She didn’t do or show anything that would make anyone anywhere want to cast her in a project.
Being in a big project, or working with a much-loved actor is something you should be very proud of. And there’s a good argument for having it on your reel. But don’t put it first unless the material earns it.
If in doubt, go back to tip number one, focus on what shows great acting.
3.Consider small, subtle moments.
There’s a weird epidemic in the showreel world; where actors and showreel editors think the best scene to show is the giant screaming kitchen argument between lovers.
Here’s what happens when we watch that scene.
We say to ourselves, ‘okay, here’s the couple-being-really-loud-scene’.
After that moment, we have all the information we need. There are no layers, no drama, no nuance. It’s just noise.
If you’re creating a showreel from scratch scene; it totally makes sense that you want a relationship scene. It’s a great way to show the nuance of relationships and conflict. But the key thing is the nuance. Arguments have many different stages — despair, misunderstanding, silence, shouting, confusion, connection, etc etc.
Explore those layers, don’t get stuck in the screaming – it’ll make the viewer switch off.
4.Keep a high standard throughout your reel.
Here’s a common showreel pattern:
I can tell you right now, you don’t need the third scene and you don’t need the fourth scene when creating actor showreels.
Stick to what’s good. You added in those final pieces to make it seem like you have more material, or that you’re more versatile, but it will fool NOBODY!
Be confident in scenes one and two. Stick to those and you’ll have a great showreel.
5.Pay attention to casting types.
You want to make the casting director’s job as easy as possible. You want to help them understand what types of characters you can play. The more confident they are that you fit what they’re casting, the more likely they are to call you in or hire you.
If you think you’re great at playing police officers, you absolutely need that scene on your showreel.
It doesn’t have to be a stereotypical police officer scene, but it needs to be something where we see you show authority. Some actors are great at playing lawyers and doctors. Some actors are great at playing loose cannons and anarchists.
Sure, maybe you can do both; but some of your traits as a person and actor will be stronger than others. Those parts of your personality can help you get hired.
It used to be the case that people always looked the same on television. A doctor was nearly always a white sixty year old man with a grey beard. That’s no longer the case – we are in a new era where people of all backgrounds are playing these types of roles.
But the casting ‘types’ remain true – we get a sense of the essence of an actor and the types of roles they can inhabit. I can totally understand if the idea of casting types feels limiting, but it is also a great direct line into finding acting work.
Good acting is all about smoothing out those edges, showing a real, living and breathing human being – almost making the casting type invisible. But first, you have to know what suits you, you have to be able to live convincingly as that character while you’re on screen.
If you can nail that, you’ll get work.
Daniel Johnson’s new book ‘How to Build a Great Acting Showreel’ is available on Amazon now
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